Thursday, January 01, 2009
Day six: All the roadrunning
Ooty's spirit-shrivelling cold and winter mist ensured that we only left after 9:30 in the morning. There was much testing and tinkering of gears and brakes before that. The professional racers and the veterans – Raj, Dickie, Venky, Samim, Nelly – were in even greater demand than usual. The briefings were stern and unequivocal: If you feel the slightest uncertainty, do not do the steep descent. Keep your hands on the brakes, your eyes upon the road. Keep left, very, very left. Basically, Billy, don't be a hero, just get down there the traditional way, in one piece.
Within fifteen minutes of setting out, it was amply clear why. The cycles slurped up the 36 steep and tightly winding hairpin bends like spaghetti, though it was more the road taking them than the other way round. I found out later that it was murder on the wrists and shoulders, but watching from the luxury of a jeep, the sight was thing of immense beauty. As was the scenery they whirred through. It was a magnificent route, mountains and forests stretching in every direction as far as the eye could see. We were lucky in that the traffic was unusually light for the time of the year and day. There was much to take in, here a valley falling away, there a rock shaped like a face, every so often an unexpected waterfall, promising signs saying things like "Bison View Point"… therefore there was a lot of pausing for photographs or just to stand and stare.
At the bottom, we entered a long stretch of forest, first the Madhumalai Tiger Sanctuary, then Masinagudi – scene of the next Project Tiger and the village staging the inevitable bundh in protest – and past the border into Karnataka, where it became Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuary. Later on the route, we heard that several cyclists had actually spotted interesting things like wild boars and wild elephants. My animal count was: 10 Nilgiri Langurs, 2000 normal monkeys, some marsh birds, interesting but unidentifiable (by me) tracks on a game trail and four domestic elephants being herded into a lake.
This last caused much shrill excitement in most of the passing vehicles. People tumbled out of these onto the bank, chiefly engaged in affirming very loudly that what they were looking at was in fact a group of elephants that included two babies. One of the minibuses did not even bother to switch off the very loud music. They really shouldn't be allowed on this road.
A few minutes after we'd driven on, one of the elephants decided that it had had enough and headed straight for the road to say so. People scattered, revealing Dipankar riding past with Samim, and the annoyed elephant got so close, the trunk brushed him. Luckily, they are racers in training and so were there and gone before the elephant could get down to anything.
But the rapid descent into the heat of the plains made everyone feel much like meat transferred straight from the freezer into the oven, especially in the excruciatingly ordinary (inevitable comparison) stretch from Gundlupet to Mysore. More than one sturdy rider wilted and retired from the lists for a while, choosing to cycle again a little farther along the route.
I was riding with Flaunge again, in a jeep hired in Ooty. We had a wonderful driver who not only knew and used all the traffic rules but also turned out to be a sort of wandering minstrel on the subject of local lore.
Returning to Mysore was like returning to a hometown. We were there just six days earlier, but it feels like a lifetime. We're all in bed now. A certain pall hangs over this evening, the last of the Tour, this descent one that none of us has the gear ratio to take on comfortably.
All the Roadrunning, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, 2006
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